DISCLAIMER:I do not own any of these characters. I think by now we all know who actually does.
SPOILERS: If you haven't read Alternate Alternatives and Alternate Alternatives 2, you may want to hold off on this story and read them first. Otherwise, you'll be totally lost.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Continuity is out the window. This story takes place in an alternate version of the already alternate world presented to use in the episodes THE WISH and DOPPLEGANDLAND. Some people and situations will be very familiar while others will seem to come out of left field. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Alternate Alternatives 3: Road to Destiny
By Kirk Baldridge
Mayor Richard Wilkins III--technically it was I, since he had actually lived for over a hundred years and simply reinvented himself as his own son when it became necessary--sat calmly behind his desk and watched a vampire put his fist through a wall in a fit of rage.
"Well now. I'm going to have to get someone in here to repair that. At taxpayers expense, I might add. I do hope your little fit was worth it."
Dracula turned, his cape spreading out majestically behind him. "Fool! Don't you understand? Without that ring I am vulnerable. Now I have to wait for the sun to go down each night before I can continue the search. And we've already lost track of the Key's whereabouts."
"I know." The Mayor frowned. "I've spent a century preparing for this day. I even went so far as to have this town established on a Hellmouth, for the express purpose of acting as a mystical convergence to draw the Key in once it was finally consigned to this plane."
"And to think," said Dracula. "It could all be ruined by two ignorant children."
Tara Maclay stood on the roof of the Magic Box, with her arms behind her back, in a long gray dress with a belt around the waist. She was staring out at the brightening horizon.
"Hurry up," she said over her shoulder. "Or else you're going to miss it."
In the shadows and safety of the nearby stairwell a shadow moved. It growled. "No."
"Come on. I'm telling you, it's perfectly safe."
Tara glanced back, giving one of her famous half-smiles. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I do." Willow Rosenberg strode out of the darkness, wiggling her hand to draw attention to the ring on her finger. "It's this little doo-dad I don't trust."
Tara couldn't help smiling all the way now. It still amused her to hear a vampire say something like doo-dad. Of course the leather-clad beauty before her was not your typical vampire, thanks to her. "Will, you'll be fine. I did a lot of research on the Gem of Amarra. Remember? I showed you the books. It doesn't just save you from staking it also protects you from the sun. You'll be fine. Trust me."
Willow sighed, which always seemed odd since the redhead did not breath. Tara'd never been able to figure that out. Or how some of the vampires they saw at Willy's smoked. The mere fact any of them spoke at all meant they obviously were capable of processing air through their lungs in some fashion, and since arriving in Sunnydale the blonde had stayed awake many a night thinking about all that, and more.
"Fine." The redhead gritted her teeth. "If I do burst into flames..."
"I'll put you out," Tara replied. "I wouldn't let anything happen to you, Will. You should know that."
Willow started to nod, then she and Tara both turned as a light appeared on the horizon. The sun was coming up, and brightness was returning to Sunnydale. It banished the darkness; sending any monsters hiding there scurrying back down into the sewers and alleys to wait for dusk. It fell across the roof of the Magic Box and warmed Tara's face, for which she smiled.
It warmed Willow too--only without the flames. "It works. It really works!"
"I told you."
The redhead spun in crazy circles, her arms outstretched. "It's been so long! I'd forgotten how good this feels! I used to take it for granted..." She smiled as she stared right into the sun itself, with no fear of losing her eyesight since she would be able to quickly heal any damage she might do.
"I'm so happy for you!" Tara embraced the redhead, who hugged her back with equal zeal, then pulled back when she realized the palms of her hands were pulsing with a faint green light. "Oh no." It had been just over three days since a mysterious energy-being calling itself the Key had melded its essence with her body to save her life, and things like this continued to happen on a disturbingly regular basis. "Not again. Willow? What's going on? What's happening to me?"
But the vampire had no answers. She didn't know any more than Tara. She just held the blonde close, and waited for the sobbing to die down. Human emotions still disturbed her, including her own, which she was still trying to get used to. "It'll be all right," she said quietly. "We'll figure this out."
Once Willow got bored with basking in the sun she and Tara gathered up the books they had come to the Magic Box for in the first place and headed home.
"Do you ever miss it?"
Willow blinked. They had been walking for a few minutes and she had been daydreaming, she now realized. She had barely heard Tara's question because of it. "What?"
"I said, do you ever miss it?"
"No, I heard you," Willow replied. "I'm asking, do I ever miss what?"
Tara blushed. "Oh. I-I was talking about your human life. You know, your family and friends. Even simple things like this early morning walk. Do you ever regret leaving that stuff behind?"
"Well, I killed all my family and friends," said Willow. The shock on Tara's face didn't register as she continued unabated. "So there's not a whole lot of place for regret there. I've never just walked for the sake of walking, and I think even if I did I would prefer the moonlight anyway." She paused, in that way humans did when taking a breath, and only then noticed Tara had stopped and was staring at her. "What?"
"Y-You killed them? Your family?"
Willow nodded. "With a little help from Xander, yes. We made an evening out of it. Hunting them down one by one until..." Something about look in Tara's eyes and the way her lower lip trembled made her stop talking. While her humanity had begun to resurface after the bloodlust was taken from her system there were a lot of emotional ties she had yet to reestablish--assuming she ever could. As human-like as she was, or at least could become, she would never actually be human again. "I'm sorry. I know this hurts, but there's something you have to remember. I may look like any other girl..." Her face morphed. "...but I'm not." Her face returned to normal. "I hope you can be okay with that eventually. It's only been a week. I understand if you can't though. There's still a lot about my being a vampire you're going to have to learn if you want to..." Tara stopped her rambling with a kiss. "Hey. I get it. I was a little freaked, I'll admit. I don't know if this is going to work out, Will. You're a vampire, and I'm a...whatever you call a witch who's been possessed by some kind of a mysterious energy...thing." She sighed. "Now I'm starting to sound like you."
"I heard that." Willow threw an arm around the blonde's shoulders and smiled. "Fun, isn't it?"
Even though she had the Gem of Amarra, to protect her from the sun, Willow decided to take it off and stick to her normal routine at home. She slept the day away, and shortly after dusk came downstairs to find Tara sitting at the dining room table with books and papers all around her.
"Are you still at it?" Getting no response Willow slid up behind the blonde, leaned over her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. "Morning, beautiful."
Tara smiled. "It's nighttime."
"For you, maybe. I just got up." Willow pulled out another chair and sat down. "Been at this all day?"
"I'm trying to figure out what happened to me, what this Key entity you met is, and why it was here in Sunnydale in the first place."
"Nothing. There's no reference to any such being in any of the books we got from the Magic Box. Whatever the thing is, no one seems to know anything about it."
Willow put her hand on the blonde's and gently squeezed it. "Sorry. Wish I could do more to help."
"I know you do. And thanks." Tara yawned. "I need to get some sleep."
"You've had a pretty busy week."
Tara stood up. Then she hesitated, as if considered whether or not she wanted to say something. "You know, we could spend more time together if you would just reconsider this whole thing."
"You've got that ring now. You can get up with the sun the way I do. It's not exactly the same as a normal life I'll admit. But it's a step in the right direction, don't you think?"
Willow frowned. "Let me think about." Tara sighed and headed up the stairs. "Good night."
Willow sat there staring at the wall and thinking. Tara was right. The Gem could change her life. She just had to be willing to let it. She had just gotten so used to darkness and the solitude, and now she had a second chance for both light and love. Assuming she didn't blow it.
Right then and there Willow made up her mind. If doing something so simple made Tara happy it was worth the minor inconvenience. It was also the least she could do. She dug the Gem of Amarra out of her pocket, stared at it for a moment, and then put it on. A pleasant tingling sensation washed over her skin and she felt that same rush of power as before. She clenched her fists and smiled.
But that was only one problem solved. Tara still didn't know what had happened to her, and she wouldn't be truly happy until she did. The vampire considered her options. Someone in Sunnydale must know about the Key. It told her that someone had summoned it. That someone was obviously in the city. With the Master dead only a handful of people she knew had the power and resources necessary.
Willow had no idea who was behind any of it but at least she did know where to start. She got up and headed for the front door. Tara would be asleep for several hours at least. That gave her plenty of time to check her sources, and get back before she was even missed. She got as far as the front porch before a voice in the back of her mind told her not to leave, but to go check on Tara instead.
The redhead turned around and went back inside. She listened to her instincts. She took the stairs two at a time, and as she approached the door of the bedroom her keen vampiric senses detected a strange humming sound, and a faint ozone-like smell in the air. Her face turned demonic. If someone or something was trying to hurt Tara she would rip them apart and then rip the parts apart. Then she'd get mean.
Willow started to push the bedroom door--which was slightly ajar--the rest of the way open, but felt something hit it from the other side. She pushed again, harder this time. Not only could she feel a force resisting her effort, it actually succeeded in shoving her back and slammed the door closed. She grabbed the handle, only to receive a pretty nasty shock. The vampire snarled. "Okay." She shoved her fingers into the spaces between the door and the frame, hunched her shoulders, and pulled so hard she tore the whole thing off its hinges. "I win!" She dropped the door and walked into the bedroom, only to receive a shock of a different kind.
Tara was in the middle of the room, floating a foot or so off the ground, with her arms and legs outstretched. A bright green ribbon of crackling energy swirled around her and sparks of green light occasionally shot out of her hands in apparently random directions. The whole room was filled with an eerie green haze, and anything not tied down or too heavy to be lifted was also floating.
Willow tried to get into the room, only to be rebuffed by the energy field. It held her at bay even when her face turned demonic and she began attacking it physically. Since it was only energy her fists had little effect, although it did have substance and felt warm to the touch. Not that she was prepared to just give up. She had options. "Tara! Wake up, Tara!" Nothing. No movement. No response. "Wake up! Tara!"
The blonde's eyes snapped open. For a moment they were glowing green too. Then it faded, as did the energy in the rest of the room. She cried out as she, and everything else that had been floating, fell. Unlike too lamps and a vase, she landed relatively unharmed. "Willow?"
"I'm here." Willow charged into the room and crouched beside the bed. "I'm right here."
"I was just going to ask you the same thing."
Tara sat up. "I changed into my nightshirt, and I was about to crawl into bed when I suddenly got dizzy. It's like a distant voice was calling me, but I couldn't really hear it. I guess I must have got scared. The next thing I know I'm falling." She took a deep breath. "Goddess. What's wrong with me?"
"That's what I came up here to talk to you about. I know a guy who may know a guy who'd know something about this Key thing."
Willow frowned. "Do you remember Rack?"
"Sure. The creepy magic guy who told us about the Black Luster Ritual."
"If he doesn't know what this Key is, I'm sure he can direct us to someone who does."
Tara nodded. "I'll get dressed, and we can go see him."
"No." Willow stopped her. "You need your sleep. We'll wait until morning."
"Are you sure?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "What's a little schedule change between friends?"
Mayor Wilkins sat in his chair and watched out the bay window behind him as the sun came up. He waited there a few minutes more with a slight smile on his face, never moving, until a cloud of gray vapor began to flow under the bottom of his office door.
Only then did he slowly turn, to find Dracula reforming on the other side of the desk. "I'm glad you're back. But next time, I suggest you not cut it so close." The vampire snarled. "No luck I take it?"
"The one you call Rack was foolish enough to resist me. I was not able to learn anything from him."
"Ah well, no great loss. I always found him quite distasteful."
Dracula glared at the Mayor. "Time grows short. We must have the Key!"
"I know." Wilkins leaned back in his chair. "I've arranged for some assistance. I contacted some individuals who specialize in the kind of services we need right now. Search and recovery."
Dracula frowned. "Who?"
"You'll find out," said the Mayor. "Soon enough."
"Remember," Willow said as they approached Rack's place. "Let me do the talking."
"Rack respects us demons types. As least as much as he does anyone. But he loves to manipulate and intimidate other humans. Just try your best to ignore him."
Willow knocked. "Rack?" Nothing. He usually had the door open as soon as she got close, almost as if he knew she was coming. "Something's wrong." Her nose twitched. "I smell blood."
Tara tried the door, but not surprisingly it was locked. "We have to be careful. In case..." Without saying a word Willow reared back and kicked the door open; breaking the lock and one of the hinges in the process. The blonde shook her head as they walked inside. "What is it with you and doors?"
The place was a shambles. Furniture had been overturned, several windows were shattered and the air reeked of blood and death. But there was something else. A faint, ozone-like scent.
"Magic," said Tara. "Some pretty powerful spells were thrown around in here."
They did eventually find Rack, in a back room, sprawled face-down in a pool of his own blood. They rolled him over and found that his throat had virtually been ripped out.
Tara blanched. "Goddess. Who could have done this?"
"Rack did have his share of enemies," said Willow. "Maybe one of them finally got lucky." She paused, then her eyes narrowed as something else occurred to her. "Or else maybe someone was trying to stop us from finding out anything about the Key."
"That doesn't make any sense. How could anyone know we'd show up to ask about it?"
"Not us specifically. We know somebody brought the Key here on purpose. It's possible that someone else was after it, and killed Rack because of what he knew."
Tara sighed. "So what now?"
"We have to find out what Rack knew. Is there something magical you can do?"
"I don't know. Look into his mind?"
Tara shook her head. "It doesn't work that way. If he were alive, maybe. But not a corpse."
"Damn it!" The vampire put her fist through a desk, then kicked it across the room. "We're close to something. I can feel it! We can't just give up now!"
"We're not. I've got an idea. It's kind of a long-shot, but if it works it could give us some answers."
"What is it?"
Tara waved her arms. "This is...was, Rack's home. It's full of his vibrations. Traces of his life, his magic. If I can tap into that, I may be able to figure out where he spent the most time. The important places here. Maybe he's got a secret hiding place or something."
"I do." The voice was Rack's, and it seemed to be coming from all around them. "But, instead of going to all that trouble, wouldn't it just be easier to ask?"
Willow shifted to her demon-face. "I knew it! It's a trap!"
"And a brilliant one at that. I had myself murdered just so I could bring the two of you here and have a talk. I'm a genius. Now would you please shut up and listen to me?"
The vampire growled. Tara stepped forward. "Hey. Take it easy. There's no one for you to punch." She lifted her head. "We're listening."
"At least one of you is acting sensibly. The wards that are keeping my essence on this plane have limited power so I must finish this conversation quickly, or else you'll never get your answers."
"Answers to what?" Tara asked.
"All of your questions."
Willow's face returned to normal. "Fine. So talk."
"I've read about the Key. It is an ancient, extremely powerful source of energy from outside our dimension. No records exist to tell its origin, but I do know that in order for it to manifest on this plane it has to be implanted in a mortal body. Isn't that why the two of you are here?"
"Yes," said Tara. "But how do you know that?"
"I gave the people who summoned it the ritual that let them do so. I suspected the Key's host would be drawn to me in time, though I have to admit...I never imagined it would be you."
"Who was it?" Willow asked. "Why? And what's it for?" He didn't answer. "Hey! Are you still here?"
"My wards are fading. I'm running out of time. It was the Dagon priests. They wanted to keep the Key out of the hands of some great evil force. They gathered the energies of the Key easily enough, but somehow they screwed up the rest of the ritual. It swallowed them all, and with no human body and no direction it wandered aimlessly. It found its way to you, Tara, and now at last it has a purpose."
"I honestly don't know. That's part of the problem. The Key was supposed to be here, now, but as far as I can tell your involvement was not anticipated by any of the interested parties. You've altered the prophecy, Tara, and now there's no telling what's going to happen as a result. All I do know, is that you're in great danger. Both of you have enemies you aren't even aware of yet. One of them, you're already stolen from, Willow."
The vampire looked at her ring. "Dracula? Why am I not surprised?"
"He and the Mayor are allies. Together they seek to subvert the power of the Key. If successful, they may be as great a danger as what is coming. You must..." Rack's voice stopped suddenly.
Tara's eyes widened. "H-He's gone. I felt his spirit dissolve."
"Damn." Willow shook her head. "He wasn't much help."
"It's a start, at least. Maybe we can find out more about these Dagon priests. That may give us more information on the Key, and why Dracula and the Mayor want it."
"I should have known Wilkins was involved." Willow growled. "He and the Master never got along."
"Come on," said Tara. "Let's go home. I feel some computer time coming on."
The vampire shuddered. "I hate computers."
Mayor Wilkins looked up from his paperwork as the intercom buzzed. "Yes, Helen?"
"They're here, sir."
"Excellent. Send them in." Wilkins stood up and buttoned his jacket as the office door opened.
A woman walked in. She had silky brown hair, tied into a rather severe-looking ponytail, and was wearing a long black dress with strange runes printed on it. Each finger had a ring on it, and there was a flash of something metal in her mouth when she smiled slightly at the Mayor.
"Ah, you must be the Romani gypsy. What do they call you?"
He nodded. "Excellent. It's nice to meet you. And your associates?"
"They're coming. Your assistant made the mistake of flirting with one of them, and the other took offense." She smiled when a scream from the other room was abruptly cut off.
Mayor Wilkins sighed. "What a shame. Helen was the best secretary I've yet had. Oh well."
"Bint should've watched where she pointed her eyes," said a man with a decidedly English accent. He was tall and thin, with salt and pepper hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in black, including a long overcoat which swished behind him like a cape as he walked. "Bloody Americans."
Behind him came another man of about the same height and age, with brown hair that was well-coifed. He wore all black too, though without the glasses and overcoat. He also had a gaudy-looking medallion around his neck, in the image of a man with two faces. "She didn't mean anything by it, Ripper."
"And I notice you didn't try very hard to turn her away, Ethan."
Mayor Wilkins cleared his throat. "Gentlemen! And, of course, lady..."
"Who are you calling a lady?" asked Ethan.
"She's a bigger slut than you are," Ripper added.
Janna's eyes narrowed. "Why you little..."
"People!" Once he had their attention, Wilkins clasped his hands behind his back and smiled. "While I'm usually disinclined to get in the way of such...personal matters, we do have business to discuss. That is why I brought you all here, after all. Now, if you can't be civil, I suggest you leave."
"They'll behave," said Janna. "Won't you boys?"
Ripper and Ethan sneered at one another, then took a seat on either side of her.
"Excellent." Mayor Wilkins sat as well. "Nicely played, my dear."
"You just have to know how to handle them." Janna sat down and then propped her feet up on the desk. "So, what can the Triumvirate do for the Mayor of Sunnydale?"
"I need you to find something for me."
"Obviously," said Ripper. "That is what we do, mate. This bloke's a..."
"Shut up!" One of Janna's rings flashed, and the glass paperweight on Wilkin's desk shattered. "Fool. We're here now. The least we can do is hear him out."
Ethan's eyes narrowed. "Wait. There's something else. I feel a presence. Not human."
"Oh, that's just my associate," said the Mayor. He nodded toward the closet. "He doesn't like the sun, and I don't like to have my shades drawn during the day, so we compromised."
"A vampire?" Ethan asked. "You associate yourself with those loathsome creatures?"
"Cripes," said Ripper. "I hate leeches."
"They have their uses," the Mayor replied. "He'll be asleep until the sun goes down anyway, so you won't have to concern yourself with his involvement in our negotiations."
Janna stood up. "I'm afraid that's not good enough. You see, this is one thing Ripper and I agree on. Leeches are a blight on the world. We will never work with one, or anyone who does." She walked up to the closet door. "So I suggest you remove him, or else I'll do it for you."
"I assure that, that is easier said than done," said the Mayor. "He's quite powerful."
"Whatever tricks he may possess are meaningless. Leeches are a pathetic race, who are..." Janna replied. "...easily dealt with." Before Wilkins could make any move to stop her she threw open the closet door. Sunlight poured in, and Dracula screamed as his body started to smolder. He attempted to move further back into the shadows but he had no place to go. When he tried to shift to his mist-form he felt sparks of pain flow through his body and break his concentration. He screamed once more before he was reduced to dust. "See?"
Wilkins stared in open awe. "Amazing. For one hundred years he has lurked in the background, and I have never been able to so much as lay a hand on him. You are a remarkable young woman." He smiled. "With him out of the way, I can have the power for myself. I'm in your debt."
Janna sat down, and steepled her hands in her lap. "To business then. What do you need from us?"
"Check this out."
Tara walked into the living room, holding a piece of paper.
"I found some interesting data about our Dagon Priests. Their order apparently began in Europe, nobody knows exactly when, and they were said to be dedicated to the preservation of a mysterious source of power. The Key. It was their job to protect and manifest it, at a certain time and place to stop an unspecified dark force. But this plan didn't sit well with all of them. About a century and a half ago a more militant segment of the order broke off, left Europe, and became a group called the Knights of Byzantium."
Willow, who was sitting on the couch with a large, leather-bound book in her lap and a number of others spread out all around her, lifted her head. "You're kidding."
"The Knights of Byzantium? I read about them. There was no mention of the Key in any of the listings though. I just glossed over it." Willow put the book in her lap aside, and reached for another one. She thumbed through the pages. "Ah hah. The Knights were formed to do battle with some great mystical force. Something so dangerous it doesn't even have a name, at least not one that's written down. Then a hundred or so years ago the Knights left the place they had called home for so long and came here, to Sunnydale. That's not long after the city was founded. It doesn't say why they came here. It obviously went wrong."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because, they all got wiped out. Someone or something killed every last one of them."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "There's no way to know. Wilkins was around back then, but I don't think he has that kind of power. Not enough to take on an entire army. The Master might have, but he hadn't even come to this country yet. So your guess is as good as mine."
Tara sat down beside the redhead. "So the Priests and the Knights had the same agenda. To stop some demon or dark force or whatever. They just disagreed on the method."
"Looks that way."
"That explains why the Priests gathered the Key energy then. This dark force, whatever it is, must be on its way, assuming it's not here already."
"We're still shooting in the dark here. We need...wait!" Willow turned. "Do you think that machine of yours can find out where in Sunnydale the Priests did their ritual?"
"The computer? Maybe. But why?"
"The Priests were probably around for some time before they summoned the Key. There are bound to be books or notes or something left over that we can use."
Tara nodded. "That's brilliant." She leaned in and kissed Willow.
Both froze, staring deep into one another's eyes for a few moments, then wrapped their arms around each other and started kissing far more passionately.
They soon fell back on to the couch together.
Janna, Ripper and Ethan left City Hall together, the latter with a smile on his face.
"Sounds like a jolly good time, don't you think?"
Ripper frowned. "Are you daft? We're in a burg with a Hellmouth, which is giving off waves of energy all hours of the day and night, and he expects us to track one little energy pattern?"
"Yes," said Janna. "It's in a host body now. We find that, and he figures out what to do with the Key."
Ripper crossed his arms. "And how, exactly, do you propose to do that? We'll need the energy signature to find the host, but we're looking for the host to find the energy."
"I have an idea about that," said Ethan. "Janna, do you remember that time in Munich? When I raised the body of the demon Locash, so it could lead us to its treasure horde?"
"Of course. Damn thing nearly ate Ripper's brain."
Ethan smiled. "No great loss there." Janna got between them to stop Ripper from attacking him as he continued unabated. "I think I can do something similar. The blokes who were summoning the Key died. We find them and I can get them to help us find the Key."
"That's brilliant," said Janna. "We'll just have to find out where this ritual took place."
Tara was sprawled out on the living room couch, with a naked Willow draped over her equally naked body. They were just holding one another and occasionally kissing now.
"That was...incredible," the blonde said throatily. "I never imagined..." They had just finished making love, again, though the first time--several hours past--had been her first, period. "...wow."
"I aim to please," Willow replied. "And from the sound of it, I guess I did." Tara blushed and the redhead smiled. "It's a good thing we don't have any neighbors."
Tara blushed again. "You're incorrigible, you know that?"
"You're also an amazing kisser. Do you get a lot of practice or what?"
"It's a vampire thing. We don't have to breath, so I can keep going a lot longer." Willow untangled her legs from Tara's and rolled off the couch to stand up. "We also don't have much in the way of blood flow, so our circulation doesn't get cut off. We never get cramps, but you might want to stretch out."
"I'm fine. I...whoa." Tara accepted Willow's proffered hand, after she tried to stand on her own and realized both of her legs were indeed too cramped to support her on their own. "Thanks."
The vampire nodded. "Now that we've had a chance to...clear our minds, I was thinking. We need to know where the Priests stayed while they were in town, right?"
"Yes. Go on."
"Rack wouldn't have helped us without a price anyway. But I know someone I can intimidate."
Standing in the middle of Willy's, Ripper had one hand extended. All the shadows in the room had condensed in an area of the ceiling directly above him, and from that formed into a huge black hand that pinned Willy against a nearby wall, and held him several feet off the ground.
"Ready to talk now, barkeep?"
"I'd tell him if I were you," said Ethan. "He gets cranky when he's not killed anyone recently."
Close by, Janna sat on a table with her legs crossed and her hands in her lap and watched. She hadn't said a word since the three of them entered the bar.
"I...I swear, I don't know what you're talking about!" Willy could barely breath.
"Priests," said Ripper. "Go by the Order of Dagon. They were here to perform a ritual. Now the word is you're a font of knowledge in this burg." He clenched his hand, and the shadow-thing squeezed Willy harder. "Now, tell us where to find them, or else I'll have the soul-shadow suck the life out of you!" He leaned closer. "And just so you know...it won't kill you unless I tell it too. But I promise I will have you begging for death a long time before that ever happens." He released enough pressure so Willy could breath again, and talk.
"Okay, okay, I'll tell you." The bartender rubbed his throbbing neck.
As Willow and Tara walked into Willy's bar the vampire heard a familiar whistling sound. Reacting faster than a human eye could follow she reached out and caught the crossbow bolt that could otherwise have struck Tara. The redhead's face turned demonic as she looked around for their attacker.
"Oh geez." Willy peeked out from behind the bar. "Sorry Red. Sorry blondie. I didn't know it was you guys." His hands were trembling as he slowly put the crossbow aside.
"What happened to you?" Tara asked. There had obviously been some kind of struggle. Several tables and chairs were overturned, and Willy had the makings of a black eye.
"Rowdy customers." Willy licked his lips as Willow growled at him. "Hey blondie? Can you tell your girlfriend to stop sneering? She's creeping me out."
Tara crossed her arms. "She doesn't like it when you lie, Willy. And neither do I."
"You get fights in here all the time," said Willow. Her face returned to normal. "And you never try shooting any of your customers afterwards. What's going on?"
Willy sighed. "You two practice that routine did you?" He shook his head and walked back behind the bar. "Have a drink. On the house. I'll tell you all about it."
Tara and Willow took stools right beside eachother. Before either of them could say anything he poured Tara a glass of fruit juice, then Willow one of blood.
The redhead took a sip. "Hey! This is human!"
"Yeah," said Willy. "Only the best for my customers." Willow and Tara both looked at him funny, though he had a feeling each was for a different reason. "Oh, don't worry. It's donated, not...you know, stolen. There's a group of people who comes in here once or twice a week and sells me a few pints. I pay top dollar, 'cause I know there are plenty of vamps who will do the same thing."
Willow downed the contents of the glass in a single gulp, then even as she was putting it back on the counter he poured her another one. She drained that one too. "It's delicious."
Tara stared into her juice, and tried not to look at Willow as the vampire savored her red-stained lips by licking them slowly. It was both sensual and disturbing at once. "Um, so you were going to tell us? What happened? Who did this to you?"
"Three out-of-towners," Willy replied. "Never seen 'em before. Two of them were British guys, but their leader was this real quiet, scary bitch. She never talked so I don't know where she was from." He shook his head. "I'll tell you. I'm still shaking. The guy with the glasses, he had some serious mojo."
"Magic?" Tara looked around. "I thought I felt something. I just assumed it was demon residue."
"So what did these guys want?" Willow asked. "Or were they just pissed about the service around here?"
Willy leaned across the bar and lowered his voice. "Ever heard of the Order of Dagon?" Willow and Tara shared a quick glance that the bartender noted. "Guess that's a yes. If you two swear not to trash my place I'll tell you the same thing I told them."
"Which is what, exactly?" Tara asked. She was more than a little excited. This was the closest they had been to a real-live source of information about the Key.
"I know where the robed ones holed up when they were in town."
Willow and Tara approached the address Willy had given them, which turned out to be an old factory. The solid steel lock on the front gate had been burned open.
The blonde waved her hand over it. "Magic. Someone heated up the thing until the tumblers broke. That takes an awful lot of power and concentration."
"We'd better be careful then," said Willow, who shifted to her demon-face. "Stay behind me."
"Hey. I'm not exactly helpless you know."
The redhead nodded. "Yeah. But if anything does happen, I can take it." She waved her hand to show off the Gem of Amarra. "Me and my little trinket go first."
"Fine. I don't feel like shot at again today anyway." Tara followed Willow in the front door, which was also wide open. She was worried that Willow might be getting too overconfident where her own safety was concerned. The Gem did make her much tougher but not totally invulnerable; she could still be injured or even killed by both fire and magic. "Will? We should still be careful."
Willow turned and kissed the blonde, they both smiled, then she resumed the search for the sound she had been trying to track down since they entered the building. Her ultra-sensitive vampire hearing finally led them to a dark staircase into an equally dark, musty underground area that had probably once been used for storage, but was now some kind of makeshift temple. The corridor opened up into a dirt-floor room lined with torches; it was muggy and smelled like incense and rotting flesh.
As it turned out, that was because a half-dozen badly decomposed bodies had been dug up and arranged in some disturbingly life-like poses. A darkly-clad man was seated cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the room, a bowl of burning material in front of him and several smoking candles arranged around him. His eyes were closed and he was chanting the same phrase, over and over again. Nearby stood another darkly-clad man with glasses and an attractive, noticeably bored-looking women with long, dark hair.
"Guess this must be the place," Willow whispered. "Can you tell what he's doing?"
"I think he's saying...replay? Resume? No wait, that's Latin. This is...Egyptian?" Her eyes widened. "Goddess. I-I think...he's trying to bring these people back to life. Sort of."
Willow frowned. "What? How do you sort of bring someone back to life?"
"He doesn't want to resurrect them completely. He just wants to basically wake them up. Stick them into a kind of limbo state between life and death."
Tara shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think I want to know. It's so horrible."
"So, he's trying to create zombies?" Willow asked. "Okay. But there's got to be an easier way than this. And why these Priests? Do they have any idea how many cemeteries there are in Sunnydale? You can't go five feet without bumping into a corpse. Why dig these guys up specifically?"
"Maybe it has something to do with the Key," said Tara. "They could be after the same thing we are."
Ethan threw his head back and cried out as smoke began to billow from the bowl.
It flowed and swirled around him like a multitude of vaporous serpents, then at a gesture from him one wormed its way into the slack mouth of each of the corpses. Slowly but surely they began to move.
"Blood marvelous!" Ethan stood up. "Come to me, kiddies." The reanimated corpses shambled toward him, their sunken eye sockets filled with a faint glow. "I've got a job for you."
Ripper came up behind him. "Ballocks. They're hideous. And they reek."
"Quiet," Ethan hissed. "Or you'll scramble their programming. They can only absorb so much input." He cleared his throat and waved to get the zombies attention. "Listen up. I need you to find something for me. The Key. I can feel its energy in you. I need you to lead us to it."
Willow and Tara glanced at one another, but said nothing. They were looking for the Key.
"They're just standing there," said Janna. "What's wrong?"
Ripper laughed. "You buggered it, mate."
"Would you shut up!" Ethan strove to control his temper. "Don't just stand there! Where is the Key?"
One by one the zombies all turned, raised their rotting--and in some cases, fleshless--arms, and pointed. To the surprise of Willow and Tara they were pointing right at where they were hiding.
"Bloody hell," said Ripper. "What's going on?"
Janna's eyes narrowed. "Wait a second. I feel...there's a leech here."
"And something else," said Ripper. "Energy. So much power. Ethan, what about it?"
"The Key." Ethan grinned. "Don't you see? It's what the deadheads were trying to tell us." He pointed at the same area as the zombies. "Our prize has come to us, mates! We just have to claim it!"
Willow snarled. "Damn it! I hate that word!"
"She called me a leech. It's a derogatory term for vampires."
Tara nodded. "No, I get that. I'm just saying, is this really the time to discuss this? These three are here after the Key. That means they want..."
"...you." Willow shook her head. "No way. No way in hell."
"Come on, let's get out of here!" Tara grabbed Willow's hand and made a break for the door, but stopped when a solid wall of writhing shadows rose in front of it to block their escape. They turned to see the man called Ripper holding out his own hand and smiling. "Uh oh."
Ethan smiled. "Look at the pretty birds. Isn't this sweet?"
"Two freaks working together," said Janna. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
Willow snarled. She pulled her hand out of Tara's and clenched her fists as they continued the taunts.
Ripper looked Tara up and down. "I'll say one thing for the bloody Key. It wraps a nice package."
"Brilliant that," Ethan added. "No wonder his Honor was having such a hard time. It hadn't taken a human form. It was actually in a human. And a ripe one at that."
"It's a shame," said Janna. "That we have to ruin her outsides, to get at what's inside."
Ripper nodded. "On the other hand, should be fun."
"That's true." Janna sneered at Willow. "As for you, leech. This isn't your fight. Let us have the girl, and we'll do you a big favor and let you live."
"You'll get her..." Willow shifted to her demon-face. "...over my dead body!"
"Have it your way," said Ethan. "Tear the redhead apart! But bring me the other one unharmed!"
The zombies obeyed, shuffling toward Willow and Tara while never making a sound. The vampire stood tensed, gnashing her teeth as she waited for the clumsy gait of the corpses to get them close enough to fight. Finally she lost her patience and charged the nearest one. She gave a throaty roar as she plunged her fist deep into its sunken chest cavity and it burst right out the back, covered in dust and slime.
The zombie didn't even seem to notice. It brought both bony fists down on Willow's head, rattling her skull like it was a drum. But the vampire was far from incapacitated. She maintained her footing, shrugged off the pain, and rammed her shoulder into the zombies stomach. As it was doubled over from the impact she grabbed its head and twisted it as hard as she could. Under normal circumstances that would have been enough to snap the neck of any demon or creature she might encounter. In the case of the zombie it tore the creature's head completely off with a sickening crack of bone. She hissed and tossed it aside.
Then the others were upon her. All five remaining zombies began punching and kicking Willow, and before too long their combined strength overwhelmed even the vampire. She fell, to her hands and knees, unable to ward off so many solid blows raining down on her from different directions.
Tara felt helpless as she watched her lover being beaten. She knew she couldn't compete physically, so she tried to remember what she had read about zombies. They were strong, had no capacity to feel pain and were immune to all conventional weapons and most magic. Most, but not all. As soon as she thought this one of her hands glowed bright green, and the zombies suddenly burst into flames. They continued pounding on Willow, though, until they were reduced to smoldering piles of ash in a ring around her.
Ethan blinked. "Bugger me."
"Did you feel that?" Janna asked Ripper. "It was...extraordinary."
He nodded. "It's no wonder the Mayor wants this bloody Key so badly."
Tara approached Willow, while keeping a wary eye on their three friends. "Are you okay?"
"Sure, except that I hurt in places I didn't even know I had places." The vampire lurched to her feet. "But this just reinforces my innate dislike for zombies." She growled. "Okay, time for round two." She turned to face the trio, a cocky sneer on her face. "Next?"
"Oh, do let me," said Ripper. "I do enjoy a good throwdown." Ethan and Janna nodded and moved out of the way, while he cracked his knuckles. "Come on then, leech!"
Willow laughed. "My pleasure!" She either didn't notice or else chose to ignore the way all the shadows around her began to run together as she charged Ripper. The vampire stepped onto a growing black spot on the floor, and it closed around her foot like a bear-trap. With one foot immobilized she cried out and fell on her side, where an increasingly large number of spikes formed out of the shadows and began piercing various parts of her body. She thrashed about wildly and screamed as her blood flowed.
"Willow!" Tara started toward her lover, only to have Ethan step in between them. "Get out of my way!"
"Or what, love?"
The blonde swung her outstretched hand in a wide arc, generating a wave of simmering green energy that struck Ethan first and hardest. He was thrown head-over-heels into a pillar on the far side of the chamber and slid to the ground, blissfully unconscious. Ripper didn't fare much better. Unable to run or get out of the way in time, all he could do was turn his back on the energy before it picked him up off the ground and pitched him face-first into a wall; unconsciousness bringing an end to his magic. As it happened Janna managed to duck behind a pillar and did not suffer anything more than ringing ears and some dizziness.
Tara stared at her hand. "Goddess."
"How did you do that?" Willow asked. "That was amazing."
Tara was becoming more and scared of the energy inside her. She hadn't meant to hurt either man so badly. She didn't even know for sure if either of them was still alive. "I have no idea."
"Impressive," said Janna. She stepped out where they could see her. "You've learned to tap into the power of the Key already. There are witches twice your age who couldn't never pull that off."
"Who are you people?" Tara asked. "What do you want with me?"
"It's not actually you we want. It's the energy within you. The fact that your body is housing it is unfortunate, but if you like I may be able to persuade Ethan to revive your body once we've removed the Key. I assure you, it's not nearly as unpleasant as what we were doing here today."
Willow growled. "Stay the hell away from her!"
"Save it, you blood-sucking freak. You are of no consequence in what's going on here. There are forces at work far beyond your meager comprehension, and your girlfriend's right at the center of it. So unless you plan to fight every ugly, black-mojo beastie in this city, you'd better give her to us!"
"Are you just gonna talk?" Willow asked. "Or fight?"
"If that's your choice..." Janna lowered her head. "Do you know what a gypsy's most powerful weapon is?" When she looked up at them again Willow and Tara noted her previously dark pupils had become twin pools of swirling silver. "I'll give you a hint! It's in all the movies!" Witch and vampire each were seized by searing bolts of pain. "If you can't guess, I'll just have to tell you." They both cried out and fell to their knees. For Tara it felt like her body was being turned inside out. In Willow's case it was a forced sunbath. "The evil eye! It's a trick I picked up from a woman in my tribe. I just modified it, you see, to make it more fun." She smiled. "Oh come on!" Her eyes flashed and the pain grew worse for each of them. "At least have the decency to scream."
Tara clutched her head, tears pouring from her glowing green eyes. When she opened her mouth to do just that, to scream out against the sheer agony smoldering in every fiber of her being, she instead released a green energy which shot every direction at once. It missed Willow by inches as the vampire fell flat on her face but Janna took the full brunt of the blast this time, and for one terrible moment must have felt as if she was being flayed alive as it shredded most of her clothing and singed the skin underneath. She slumped to the far side of the room, while a sense of relief passed through Willow and Tara as the pain she had been inducing dwindled. The effects remained however, eventually rendering both of them unconscious.
Across town, Mayor Wilkins--who was just getting ready to leave for the evening--instead let his briefcase slip out of his hand and walked over to the bay window behind his desk.
"That energy..." He paled. "The Key!" It was radiating even more strongly than before. And he knew if a less than sensitive like himself could recognize it, it would act as a beacon to anyone who was familiar with the Key. Even though it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, he knew it was too late. "She'll come now. Sunnydale, maybe even the whole world, is doomed."
The Mayor sat down at his desk. He took a piece of paper out. With a heavy heart he started to write a letter of resignation as his final act in office.
Willow groaned, as she awoke to a throbbing head and a strange tingling in her skin that would not go away. She sat up, testing her arms and legs and neck to make sure everything was still working properly. Then she started to
look around. "Tara!" The blonde was laying face-down a few feet away.
Willow crawled to her side. "Tara? Baby?" Thankfully, she was still alive. Rolling her over the vampire checked but couldn't find any obvious external injuries. "I'd better get you out of here before the triplets wake up and start this stupid fight all over again." She scooped Tara up into her arms. She glared at the three who had attacked them to make sure they weren't in any condition to follow, then took off like a shot.
It was some time later before Ripper and Ethan began to stir.
The two of them woke up slowly, their heads and joints aching. Though they were clearly in pain they didn't say a word to one another as they began searching for Janna. She was curled up in the corner, unconscious and barely breathing, but alive. They left her where she was for the time being.
"What the bloody hell was that?" Ripper asked. "How does a little witch have so much power?"
"It's wasn't her," Ethan replied, his ears still ringing. "It was the Key."
"I felt it. Somehow she tapped into it, just enough to strike us all down."
Ripper sneered. "Wilkins didn't say anything about that. He said it'd be inanimate. The host was just supposed to be a shell."
"Either he was lying to us, or else he didn't know as much as he wanted us to believe." Ethan rubbed his neck. "It doesn't really matter anyway. We should get out of here."
"But, the witch..."
"Forget the bloody witch, would you?" Ethan sighed. "Forget the Mayor. The Key. The whole blooming job. I've a bad feeling about this place, mate."
"What?" Ripper asked. "You mean Sunnydale?"
"Death is coming, and I don't think we want to be here when it arrives."
"Fine. You get Janna, and..." Ripper's face fell. "Bloody hell. Do you feel that?"
Ethan nodded. "Ballocks. We're too late."
Both men jumped as every torch around them inexplicably winked out, one by one, plunging the entire chamber into utter darkness. For a few seconds nothing happened, then all of them spontaneously erupted into flame once again, each far brighter than before. That was when they realized they were not alone.
A lone figure was standing in the middle of the room. A relatively small, humanoid figure, wearing a long black robe with a hood pulled down over its face. "Where is it?" The newcomer's voice, though obviously female, had a strange echoing effect to it. It also seemed oddly familiar to the two men.
"Where is what, love?" Ethan asked. "Afraid you'll have to be more specific than that."
She gestured, slightly, and he felt a tug. His mind couldn't even begin to comprehend what was happening as his skin, every inch of it, was flayed from his body all at once. Muscles and tendons and blood were fully exposed as he collapsed, shuddering and gasping even as he slowly, horribly died.
"Ethan!" Ripper turned back, his face ashen. "W-What are you?"
He shook his head. "What?"
"The Key. It was here. I followed it here. Where is it?"
"I-I don't know. That's the God's honest truth. She must've left while we were nodding off."
"It's in a human body. Trapped. Lurking just beneath the surface. A witch."
"Where is this witch now?"
"W-With the flame-haired vampire, probably. She was all sweet on a leech, can you believe that?"
"Tell me more. Where can I find this witch and this vampire?"
Ripper shook his head. "Ask the Mayor. Name of Wilkins. He's the bloke who sent us after them, and I think he knows more than he's letting on. Go ask him about your bloody Key."
"I shall." All the torches in the chamber winked out again.
"Ballocks!" For someone who was a master of shadows, Ripper hated being in the dark. It was the only place his powers didn't work. Even in the brightest day they were always shadows.
Then all of a sudden the torches began to explode. Literally. The flames grew and grew, engulfing the room and everyone in it within a matter of seconds.
Ripper and the just awakening Janna screamed, but not for long.
Richard Wilkins III, the now resigned Mayor of Sunnydale, sat in the rear of his limousine with his hands in his lap and his head bowed. He was heading out of town as fast as the car could go. He didn't look back, though a part of him regretted leaving behind everything he had spent so many decades planning and preparing. Building a town on a Hellmouth for the purpose of creating a mystical convergence that would eventually draw in the Key, only it drew in something else as well.
A great force from outside time and space. The entity of darkness whose very existence was first written about and feared by the Knights of Byzantium and their predecessors, the Priests of Dagon. It was an object of concern even for a vampire like Dracula, which was why he'd joined with Wilkins long ago to gather the power of the Key to fight it. Trying to stop the entity in question had cost the Knights their lives when they foolishly confronted it, during its first appearance a hundred years ago, and now it was back.
'Or it will be soon,' Wilkins said to himself. He wasn't planning to wait around and find out.
The driver's strangled cry roused Wilkins from his reverie. He looked up to see a hooded figure standing in the middle of the road. Not moving to attack. Just waiting.
"What should I do, sir?" Marcos was loyal. If Wilkins instructed him to run the mysterious being over he would do so without question or hesitation.
Wilkins sighed. "Stop. There's no point in trying to run any longer." He closed his eyes and tried to focus as the limousine slowly came to a halt. Only when he felt fully ready did he take a deep breath, open the door, and slide out. Even then he did not gaze directly at the other. "I knew you'd come."
"Then you know why I am here."
"Yes." Wilkins clasped his hands behind his back. "But I'm afraid you're wasting your time with me. I don't know where the Key is. Not precisely. I do have people searching for it..."
"I know. I have...dealt with them, already."
"I see. I take it they had not found the Key yet either?"
"A pity. I have the feeling that would have saved us both a great deal of time and trouble."
The entity didn't move. Not that Wilkins saw. Yet in less than the span it took him to blink, it was standing right in front of him. Less than a foot away.
"Where is the vampire?"
It seemed a strange question in Sunnydale. He tried not to laugh. "Which vampire?"
"The one with the Key. Your operatives told me the Key was in the form of a human woman, and that she was in the company of a flame-haired vampire."
Wilkins blinked. "Flame...oh for the love of...can you believe it?" He shook his head. "I should have known. That little minx has been stirring up so much trouble lately."
"A name! Give me her name!"
"I don't know the girl's," said Wilkins. "The one who is apparently the Key? But I'd say her companion is Willow Rosenberg. She was a big name around town until recently."
The hooded figure remained silent. Unmoving. He couldn't even tell if it was breathing. Or, for that matter, if it even needed to breath at all. He had never seen its face. Not even a century past, the first and last time the two of them had met. "I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you. If it hadn't been for you, and for the power you gave me, I would never have been able to maintain order in my city all these years."
"And if it wasn't for you, I would have had the Key in my possession by now."
"What? I don't understand."
"Do not compound your crime by lying further. You covet my Key. I granted you the capacity to resist death so you could help me gain its power. And you repay me by trying to steal its power for yourself." The entity reached out one black-nailed hand and clamped it over Wilkins face. "I hereby withdraw my gift! Your power, your life, is forfeit! As punishment for betraying me I sentence you to death. For decades of what I assumed was loyalty, I do you the courtesy of making it..." A pale, slender arm jerked, snapping his neck like so much kindling, and then let him fall to the ground, his lifeless body still twitching. "...quick."
Too late, Marcos came flying out of the front seat of the limousine. "Sir!" He never saw the entities hand move or feel the energy that washed over his body. He did, however, have breath enough for one last scream before the skin was flayed from his body. When he hit the ground he was a bloody, lifeless mess.
"I never get tired of doing that." The hooded figure pulled its hands back into the voluminous sleeves of its robe and turned to gaze back toward the city. Whatever had caused the Key to surge had obviously passed, and with the Hellmouth giving off so much energy of its own there was little hope of finding it while it was inactive. "Then I'll just have to wait. I can be patient." Sooner or later the Key would flare up again, especially since it was bonded to an emotional human. At that point, it would be easy to find.
Tara stirred when she felt the touch of something cool and wet against her face. Groaning, she opened her eyes to see a washcloth being pulled away from her forehead.
Kneeling on the bed beside her, with a bowel of water in her lap, the redhead smiled. "Hey. Welcome back. Are you feeling okay?"
"I think so." Tara sat up, even though she was still dizzy. "We're home. Did we win?"
Willow nodded. "Thanks to you."
Again, Willow nodded. "You blasted all three of those guys. It was incredible." "I-I can't remember." Tara put a hand to her forehead. "Any of it, except..." She vividly recalled the pain from the glowing silver eyes of the woman who attacked them. "Those people. Goddess. They had so much power. Do you think they'll come back?"
"Those losers? Are you kidding? They probably took one look at your power, real power, and got the hell out of Sunnydale. I bet they're long gone by now." Willow stroke Tara's cheek. "Amazing."
"You're the complete package, you know that? Beauty. Brains." The redhead smiled hungrily. "And...do you have any idea how much I just want to..."
Tara threw her arms around Willow's neck and kissed her. "Show me."
The two of them made love on and off for the rest of the afternoon until Tara was just too worn out to continue any longer. Once she was fast asleep Willow reluctantly worked her way free of the blonde's arms, kissed her on the cheek and slid out of bed, then pulled on a nightshirt and went downstairs to find something to eat. She kept a few pints of animal blood tucked away in the back of the refrigerator.
Her face changed, turning demonic as she drank. That sometimes happened when she was hungry. Once she was finished she licked her red-stained lips clean and smiled as she realized that for the first time in a very long time she was actually happy. Being Xander's childe and the Master's servant always kept her busy and unfulfilled. Even back then she longed for something more. Now, finally, she had it.
Tara. Willow's face changed back as she considered rejoining her lover in bed. She wasn't tired. Vampires had a great deal of stamina, and while they did need occasional sleep to 'recharge the batteries' they didn't need to do it as often or for as long as humans. Of course, that wasn't really why she was going back upstairs. She wanted to be near Tara, even if it was only to watch her sleep.
But as she neared the doorless bedroom she felt a tingling sensation. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw an eerie green glow emanating from within. Tara had fallen asleep, and the Key was apparently starting to act up again. She glanced inside and, sure enough, saw the blonde glowing and floating.
Willow sighed. "Not again."
Elsewhere in Sunnydale, the hooded figure slowly turned.
A green bolt of lightning struck Willow as she was trying to sneak closer to Tara, after her repeated calls to the blonde failed to rouse her. The force of the energy blast knocked her back into a wall, though this time she didn't actually feel any pain.
Her mind was filled with bizarre images...
And even words. Repeated over and over again.
"She's coming. She's coming."
Then just like that, it all stopped. Everything grew quiet and dark again. The green energy faded and Tara floated back down to the bed.
Willow staggered to her feet. "What the hell was that?"
Then the bedroom window exploded inward, throwing shards of glass like knives in ever direction. Some sliced deeply into Willow's flesh as she flung herself onto the bed in an effort to get between Tara and whatever was happening. She also shifted to her demon face.
"Gallant," said an impossibly familiar voice. "Is it possible you actually have feelings for a human?" Willow slid off the bed and turned to face a mysterious hooded figure. "Or can it possibly be the Key you're drawn to? Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Willow snarled. "Shut up!"
"Hmm...your aura is not that of a typical vampire. Something's off about you." The hooded figure's head cocked to one side. "Ah yes, I see now. The Black Luster Ritual."
"How do you know about that?" It had been days since Tara's spell.
"I can still feel it's taint upon you. Whoever performed it clearly did not know what they were doing."
Willow's eyes narrowed. "How do you know about the Key? Do you work for Wilkins?"
"That ingrate?" The hooded figure laughed. "Hardly. I know more about the Key, and about you, I might add, than you can possibly imagine little demon. For you see..." Pale hands gradually drew back the flowing hood, to reveal a face almost identical to Willow's own. The only real differences were her black hair, black eyes, and the veined scars lining her cheeks and forehead. "...I am you."
Willow lost her demon-face as she backed away, stopping only once she felt the bed behind her. That prompted her to make a casual step to the right so she was in between Tara and the newcomer. She didn't know who or what this woman was, but she wasn't about to let her get her lover.
"So, me as a vampire?" The dark-haired Willow shook her head. "Again? That makes two. Not very evil from the look of you. But still skanky...and gay, apparently."
The vampire snarled. 'She sounds like me,' the redhead said to herself. 'And her scent. It's mine, only...not. Kind of like the other one." Her brief stay in an alternate world, where she encountered the pink and fuzzy-clad, human version of herself, prevented her from dismissing the woman outright. If there was one world with another her in it, she had no reason to think there couldn't be others.
"Where did you come from?"
"If I'm any judge of expressions...and in this case I'd better be, I'd say you already know. Or at least, you suspect the truth." The black-haired Willow nodded. "Yes. I really am you, from what some people would call an alternate reality, though dimensional incongruity is probably more precise."
The vampire nodded. "I knew it."
"Wait." The dark-haired Willow looked her up and down. "Your aura. You've been outside the dimensional walls for a time, haven't you? I should have seen it before." She frowned. "We're more alike than I thought possible. It's such a shame you must stand in my way now."
"Why? What do you want?"
"I should have thought that would be obvious by now. I want the Key." The dark-haired Willow tried to look past her vampiric counterpart, but wasn't able to get a clear view of the blonde-haired figure on the bed. "Now, we can do this one of two ways." She looked the vampire right in the eye. "Either you stand aside, let me take her, and go find yourself a new plaything..."
The redhead nodded. "Let me guess. Or you kill me?"
"If you're lucky. There are plenty of things I can do that are far worse than death, little demon. I've been causing pain for a very long time. I'm quite the expert."
Willow shifted back to her demon-face. "I've been playing professionally for a while."
"How cute." The other Willow's own face changed, though in more subtle ways. Her eyes narrowed and her lips grew taut. "But don't you understand yet? Your abilities, such as they are, might be quite impressive by the human standards you're forced to endure." She began to float. "I, however, have surpassed such limitations. I'm no longer just a witch. I do not merely do magic." Energy pulsed around her hands. "I am magic!"
The vampire, however, didn't appear to be particularly impressed. "Are you done? Go on, do all the parlor tricks you want. I couldn't care less." She glanced over her shoulder. "Because if you honestly think I'll just stand by and let you hurt my girlfriend, you're out of your mind."
"Perhaps you're right." The dark-haired Willow touched down, then raised her hand. A pulse of energy slammed into the vampire, who was knocked right through the bedroom window. Glass and wood followed her out into the bright afternoon sun. "But I doubt it." She approached the bed. "As for you..." Only then did she get a good look at the person sleeping on the bed, and stopped in her tracks. All the blood drained from her already pale features. "I don't believe it. Not her! Anyone but her!"
Tara was awakened, finally, by Willow's proximity to her as well as by the tone and volume of her voice. Not to mention the ambient magic hovering around her. It stirred something deep within the sleeping witch, who opened her eyes to a surprising sight.
Black hair. Blue-black veins on her pale face. Yet it was still Willow. "What happened?"
Willow couldn't believe her own eyes. It never occurred to her that the person with her doppleganger would be a woman she actually knew. She turned away, her lips taut and eyes narrowed. It wasn't her Tara, of course. Just a remarkably beautiful facsimile. "Why did it have to be you?"
Tara climbed off the bed. "I-I don't understand. Your aura...it's so bright. And I can feel...magic?" She gasped. "Is that...oh my Goddess! You have a pulse! And you're breathing?" She stepped closer. None of this made any sense, but she could only come to one conclusion. "You're not a vampire anymore!"
'She thinks I'm her Willow. I can use this.' Willow shrugged her shoulders. "You were having a bad dream. I was trying to wake you up, but I got hit by a big bolt of energy. I blacked out." She held up her hands. "When I came to I was like this. I'm not sure what happened."
Tara's face fell. "The Key?"
"Maybe. We don't know everything it can do. It's possible it changed me somehow."
"This is...unbelievable." Tara couldn't decide if she should hug her lover, or back away from her. Something felt off about what Willow was saying, and what she was sensing. "How do you feel?"
Willow gestured, and a nearby table exploded. "Powerful. Is this what it's like for you every day? Surging with magic? It's invigorating." She smiled. "Come here and kiss me."
Tara started toward her, but then both women heard footsteps. Someone was stomping up the stairs and charged into the bedroom. The blonde's eyes grew wide once more. "Willow?"
The redhead was seething with anger. "Okay. That hurt."
"But it was supposed to kill you," said the other Willow. "Clearly there is more to you than meets the eye, little demon." She glanced at Tara. "We were so close, weren't we?"
Tara was trembling. She backed away, from both Willows. "What in the Goddess' name...is going on here? How can there be two of you?"
"Tara," said the vampire. "Listen. Do you remember when I told you about how I went to an alternate reality, and met another version of myself?" Tara nodded. "This is like that. Only she came to me."
The dark-haired Willow nodded. "I didn't come here for you though." She turned to Tara and smiled. "You're the one I'm here to see. I lost you a long time ago in my world. When I realized you were here in this one, I arranged all of this so the two of us could end up together."
Willow, the vampire, growled. "She's lying! She just wants the Key. Like Dracula and the Mayor!"
"Silence!" Willow, the human, held up her hand and the vampire found herself unable to move or speak. "Tara. If you don't believe anything else I have said, or will say, believe this. You mean more to me than life itself. Reality is nothing without you in it. I've proven it once. I can do it again."
Tara felt her cheeks reddening. "So you're saying...the Tara of your world died and now you've come all the way to this world to find me? Why? To get back your lost love? That's crazy."
"Love often is." The dark-haired Willow frowned. "But one thing first. I didn't come here on purpose. After you died, I lost control. I gave in completely to the darkest, most primal aspects of magic, and I reveled in it. I was so out of it, in fact, I didn't realize I was bending the fabric of time and space until it was too late. Next thing I know, I'm here. Then someone told me you were still alive, and..."
Willow, the vampire, found her voice again. "Liar! Tara, don't listen to her. This sob-story is total crap! She just wants you to let your guard down so she can find a way to get to the Key."
"I've had just about enough of your lip," said the black-haired Willow. She gestured, and a piece of the chair she had destroyed earlier rose into the air. "I'm sorry about this, Tara."
It shot across the room and embedded itself deeply, and squarely, into the vampire's heart.
Tara felt a flutter of panic, until she remembered the ring Willow was wearing. Then she had to try not to smile as the vampire just ripped the wood out of her chest.
"Nice shot." Willow tossed it aside. "But you're going to have to do better than that."
The black-haired Willow frowned. "Interesting. First the sun and now stakes? Perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye, demon."
"Stop it," said Tara. "Please. We don't have to do this."
"Yes," the vampire countered. "We do!" She snarled and threw herself at her doppleganger, who just managed to get her hands up in time to deflect the attack with an invisible barrier.
The black-haired Willow nonetheless took a step back. "You monster! Are you nuts? Look what you're going to your girlfriend!"
Distracted, the vampire glanced at Tara, who shook her head. In that instant the black-haired Willow struck with a bolt of energy that slammed her back into the wall and set her shirt on fire. As she tore it off the vampire found herself lifted into the air. With no leverage and nothing to grab on to she was unable to stop her body from being spun around faster and faster and then suddenly pitched across the room, face-first into a mirror, then repeatedly driven head-first into the ceiling. Before long she just stopped moving.
"That takes care of that." Willow dropped her vampiric self and crossed her arms. "You know, I'm thinking that I should have killed you last time. But then again, it probably wasn't actually you, was it? That's the wonderful thing about alternate realities. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations." She gestured, and the carpet fibers grew into thick chords that bound the unconscious vampire. "For example, in this world you seem to have some pretty nifty little tricks up your...sleeve." She smiled. "I see now. It's that ring. I don't recognize it but the magicks that forged it are obviously quite old and powerful. I knew there had to be an explanation."
"Willow?" Tara drew the black-haired witch's attention. "Why are you doing this?"
"I told you babe, it's all for you. I came her for you."
The blonde shook her head. "I don't believe that. I heard you, a few minutes ago, as I was waking up. You weren't even expecting to find me in this world. Seeing me shocked you. Which means you obviously didn't come to this world for me. So tell me another story."
"You're wrong," said Willow. "I did come here for you. But I didn't know it was you I was here for."
"The Key. Willow was right all along. You're here to get the Key."
Willow nodded. "Yes. But I see now I was in error. It's you I want, Tara. I don't..." She sighed. "You know what? I gave up on that lovey-dovey crap a long time ago." Energy crackled around her hands. "I loved you. More than life itself. I would have changed the world for you, but you know what happened?" She sneered. "You left. All because I was a stronger witch than you could ever hope to be."
"What are you saying?"
"This..." Willow blew huge, smoldering holes in the walls on either side of her. "...is all because of you. At first I was so sad when you left. But soon my grief turned to resentment and then, finally, anger. That's why D'Hoffryn and Rack showed up. They wanted to help me, and they did." She smiled. "I sucked all the power right out of them and it was glorious! I wasn't just using the power anymore, I was the power! So, I just wanted to thank you." Tara's eyes widened as she found herself being pulled toward Willow.
"Stop it!" The blonde couldn't move her arms, or anything else for that matter. "Let me go! Will, please!" To her surprise she actually did stop, though her feet where still off the ground.
"Will? You know I think the last person who ever called me that was Buffy...when she cried 'stop Will, stop!' as I used Dawn's shin-bone to beat her to death." Willow laughed. "I'm not your undead lover girlie. I'm the thing the darkness fears." She cupped Tara's chin. "You want the truth? Fine. Here it is." She sent a burst of mystical energy into the blonde's mind, which took the form of dark, twisted images.
Willow standing over the twisted, bloody body of a young blonde woman, clutching what appeared to be the leg of an even younger woman in her hand and smiling.
Plunging her fist into the chest of a wide-eyed young brunette man, then crushing his still beating heart.
Setting fire to ruined Magic Box, in the middle of which a distinguished-looking older man wearing glasses lay unconscious alongside a stringy-haired blonde woman.
And finally, Tara herself. Standing toe to toe with the black-haired Willow. Matching her blast for blast until an explosion engulfed the two of them and everything else went black.
"You see?" Willow smiled. "You tried to fight me there too, and look what happened. You lost. Bad. Because of you our world died, but I lived on. Our battle tore the fabric of reality and I ended up here. Unfortunately I had no control over the vagaries of quantum-temporal mechanics, and I landed in Sunnydale circa 1903. The town was in the middle of celebrating its one year anniversary when I arrived."
"A h-hundred y-years ago? But...y-you're h-here now." Tara gasped. "Are you immortal?"
Willow chuckled. "More or less. The magick keeps me young. I shared some of that power with the Mayor, and he returned the favor by plotting against me. All these years he's been searching for the Key too, only he planned to use it against me. So, I just had to punish him."
"I don't understand. You've got so much power already. What do you need the Key for?"
"Because even with everything that I am capable of I still have limits. Traversing dimensional barriers is beyond me. However, the Key has the ability to alter the fabric of time and space. With it I will be able to cross the great divide and bring my greatness to all the realities everywhere."
As the black-haired Willow was talking, the vampire woke up and began struggling against the steel-like chords holding her in place. They were strong. Really strong. She was able to stretch some of them but they didn't break, and before long she stopped because she didn't want to wear herself out.
'I have to find a way to get out of this, before that psycho hurts Tara.' As she thought the blonde's name, Willow felt a tingling sensation in her mind. It was accompanied by a faint, familiar voice. 'Goddess. Please, help me. I'm not strong enough to fight her on my own.'
Willow lifted her head. It was Tara. She was hearing Tara's thoughts. 'Maybe, if I can hear her...' The vampire lay her head back down and closed her eyes. 'Tara? Can you..umm, hear me?"
The blonde started. 'Willow?'
'Holy...what is this? Telepathy? I didn't know you could do that.'
'Neither did I.' Tara glanced at black-haired Willow, who was rambling to herself and didn't seem to be aware of what was going on between them. 'Are you okay?'
'I've been beaten a lot worse than this. But I can't move. Can you do something?'
Tara made an effort not to shake her head. 'Not without her noticing.' Her eyes widened slightly. 'Wait. I think I know one way, but I don't think you're going to like it.'
'Go ahead. We have to try something.' Curious now, the vampire opened her eyes to see Tara walk closer to her human counterpart. She cupped the other Willow's face, causing her to stop talking, then leaned in and kissed her passionately on the lips. In spite of herself, the vampire growled.
As she allowed herself to be embraced Tara slid one of her hands down Willow's hip and pointed it at the floor, then made a series of subtle gestures. Though the vampire couldn't actually see anything, she was able to feel the chords around her body loosening. Not much, but enough that she rolled her shoulders and flexed her hips and in short order created enough slack to break out. Only she didn't do so, yet.
'Okay,' she thought to Tara. 'I'm done. Stop already, would you?'
The blonde suddenly pulled away, eyes wide. Willow stared at her curiously. "Umm, well, that was..."
"Nice?" Willow offered.
Tara glanced past her, toward the other Willow, who shrugged off the chords and started to get to her feet. "Not especially. My dog at home kissed me better than that."
The black-haired Willow's eyes narrowed. "You little tease. What were you trying to do? Distract me, so..." She gasped and spun around, just in time to catch the vampire's fist square in her face. The impact knocked her across the room, where she hit the wall and slid to the ground, stunned.
"So I could wake up and do that?" the vampire asked. "Worked, didn't it?"
Tara smiled. "Nice shot."
"Yes." Willow rose, somewhat unsteadily, blood trickling from a split lip. "It was." She passed a hand in front of her face and the wound disappeared. "But you should know by now little demon." She smiled. "Strength alone will not win this fight."
The vampire snarled. That had been her most powerful punch. By all rights it should have gone right through the witch's skull. She was obviously tougher than she looked.
'Willow,' Tara whispered in the redhead's mind. 'What do we do?'
'I don't know. If my hitting her can't hurt her, I'm pretty much useless.'
'No! Don't even think that. There has to be a way!'
The black-haired Willow looked from Tara to the vampire and back again. "I see now. You're doing that Wiccan mind-meld thing, aren't you? That's a nice trick." She crossed her arms. "I never could get the hang of it myself. It seems like every time I tried all I ended up causing, was..." Pain erupted in the mind's of Willow and Tara, and the both of them screamed. "See?"
The vampire fell to her knees, clutching at her head. Tears rolled down her face. Her brain felt like it was about to explode, and she almost wished it would so the pain would stop.
Beside her Tara was crying too, only her tears hit the floor as little green specks of light. Her eyes surged with emerald energy as she slowly lifted her head.
Willow felt the power building within the blonde and it actually made her hesitate. This was beyond any kind of magic a girl like Tara should be able to do. It was old. Primal. "The Key." She reigned in her own power, stopping instead to mount a defense. She hadn't anticipated Tara's be able to tap into the Key. That wasn't even supposed to be possible. And there would be real trouble if Tara managed to attack with it.
'Better stop this before it starts.' Lightning-like balls of energy formed in Willow's hands, but before she could do anything with it Tara suddenly jerked to her feet. A wave of green energy shot out of her body in all directions and rattled the black-haired witch, who lost enough concentration for her own attack to fizzle out. "Damn!" Every fiber of her being was humming after that blast. "How did you...whoa."
The blonde's hair swirled around her head like Medusa's. It turned green for a moment, before all the color just bled out--leaving it pure white. Her eyes glowed green. "You wanted the Key." Her voice was deeper than before, and had a strange echo to it. "It is not meant for you. We are one. Now and forever."
Willow frowned. "This can't be." She didn't sense the Key any longer. All she felt was Tara's energy, only it was twice as strong as before. Maybe more. "How...what are you?"
"The end..." Tara replied. "...and also, the beginning. When our world was destroyed, I was thrown into the nexus of realities along with you. But where your stolen power allowed you to remain corporeal, in charge of your own faculties, I lost whatever fragile hold on humanity I might have had, and was reduced to the essence of magic that burns within every wielder. I floundered there lost and alone, barely even sentient any longer, until the Priests of this world reached out and plucked me into their reality. I became cohesive, though unconscious, and without the capacity to control my energies unfortunately caused the deaths of my saviors. With no will of my own I roamed the darker sections of this city for a time, before I was drawn to my own alternate self. We merged, and I've been slowly reawakening within her ever since."
Willow nodded. "Then it was destiny. We're meant to be together."
"Perhaps," said Tara. "But not the way you think. You are a pariah. You bring death and chaos to all those around you. We exist to counter your darkness."
"So what? You want us to fight again? You know how well that worked the last time."
"I have come forth to assure this world does not suffer the same fate as ours. If you and I do battle it will likely just end in a stalemate again. Something must be done to offset the balance."
Willow frowned. She never noticed the vampire rising behind her. "Like what?" The redhead lunged forward and grabbed her human counterpart's arms in an iron grip.
"How's this for a start?"
"You're joking. Please tell me this is some kind of vampire joke." The black-haired woman flexed her arms, and the vampire felt her fingers being pried open slightly. "Don't you get it yet? For a hundred years I've been training myself, body and mind. Magick has made me stronger than you could ever hope to be."
Tara stepped toward the other woman. "As you said earlier, strength isn't the only way to win." She lay a hand on Willow's chest. "And don't forget, you aren't the only one here with magic."
"Wait." Willow felt the air around her starting to grow colder. It made her skin tingle, goosebumps flared, and a great weight lay on her lungs as the cold constricted them. "What are you doing?"
"What is necessary. You must be contained."
The magic swirling around her, while invisible to the average eye, glowed brightly to Willow's mystical senses, and she knew what the blonde was doing. "No. Stop it. You can't!"
"I can. I must." Tara smiled sadly. "Though I am sorry it came down to this."
To the vampire it was just cold. Not particularly uncomfortable and certainly not life-threatening. Her skin was not reactive, and since she didn't have to breath her lungs were unaffected. Instead, she just laughed and smiled. "I can hold her! Keep going, Tara! Finish it!"
"I intend to," said the blonde. "Just be prepared to let go when I say so, or you will be trapped too."
The black-haired Willow's joints were locking up. It was becoming more difficult to move her arms and legs. It wouldn't be long before she was utterly helpless. 'No! Not like this!' Her brain was fuzzy. She couldn't focus, and that made magic all but impossible. 'Damn you, Tara!'
Tara's glowing green eyes widened. "Now! Willow, let go!"
"Right!" The vampire released her grip--her fingers close to being frostbitten--and took a few steps back just as a layer of what appeared to be ice spread across her black-haired counterpart's entire body. "Whoa, nice one. But how long will it hold her?"
"I am not certain. Hopefully long enough for me to finish this once and for all."
Willow nodded. "Do you have a plan?"
"Okay." The vampire frowned as she felt dizzy for a moment. "What's..." She looked around, wiped her eyes, and looked again. They weren't in the house anymore. "...going on?"
They were in the basement of the local high school.
"Hey! How'd you do that?"
"As I told her..." Tara nodded toward the black-haired Willow. "...she's not the only one with power."
Willow crossed her arms. "I remember this place. This is near where the Master was trapped for so long. Of all the places in Sunnydale, why did you bring us here?"
"I cannot kill you...her. Even if it is possible, I'm not certain I could bring myself to do it. Fortunately, there are a number of other options available. Banishment, for one."
Willow glanced down. "The Hellmouth? You're going to send her through the Hellmouth?"
"Yes. The other dimension will contain her evil for all time. This world, and all the others she hoped to destroy in her mad quest for the Key, would be safe."
"I get that. But you are the Key, right? Can't you just open a portal or a door or whatever? Isn't that what the Key is for in the first place? What do you need the Hellmouth for?"
"Interdimensional warping is dangerous even under the best of circumstances. If I used my power in the manner you suggest it could severely weaken the barriers between realities. Were they to break down even for an instant, everyone and everything in all the worlds would be destroyed. That's what Willow, the other, wanted to do. But, it is possible to circumvent such a threat by tapping into the power of a nexus-point like the Hellmouth. There may still be some danger involved, but it would be minimal by comparison."
"Then what? Let's say we do get rid of me...her..." Willow shook her head. "...whatever. Afterwards, are you still going to be, you know, like this?" She saw the look on Tara's face and immediately felt bad. "I'm talking about the outside stuff. I have no problem with your creamy green center. But your white hair and creepy voice, what about the woman I love? Is she still in there somewhere?"
"She is. She..." Tara stopped. "You...love me?" The vampire had never said that to her before. Even the Key grew silent within her as she considered the consequences of this disclosure.
Willow would have blushed, were she able. "What, you didn't know?" The witch shook her head. "See, that's why you're a doofus." They both smiled. "It's been a long time since I've felt anything. Being a vampire left me dead in more ways than one. Being with you has rekindled a spark of my humanity, and I've started to understand just how lonely I've been all these years, even when I was with Xander."
"I know the feeling." A streak of her normal blonde color appeared in Tara's hair. "After my mother died my dad and my brother changed. They started treating me less like a daughter or a sister, and more like a servant. I had to cook and clean and take care of them when they were drunk. My schoolwork suffered because I didn't have much time to study. 'Book-learning' don't mean nothing' my brother always said. The best day of my life was when I got on a bus to leave that little backwater town...and met you."
Unnoticed by either woman, a crack formed in the front of the ice cocoon encasing the black-haired Willow. It allowed a little air inside, and her eyes began to move. They closed for a moment, and when they opened again an eerie red glow had replaced the piercing ebony.
Willow stepped closed to Tara. "Do me a favor, would you?"
"Finish this witch off, so we can go home and..."
Tara blushed. "Consider it done." More blonde streaks appeared in her hair as she turned away from the vampire and raised her arms. "I have to be very careful. Opening the Hellmouth is risky. Too much and I risk letting any of the creatures on the other side out. Too little, and she won't go through. I have to find just the right balance, and I don't know what chance either of us has if I fail."
"You won't," said Willow. "I know it. I believe in you."
Tara took a deep breath. "Okay." Rings of energy filled her hands. "Here we go." The earth began to tremble, and almost immediately several small cracks appeared in the floor. They soon merged into large, jagged opening, out of which seeped a thick gray mist. "The Hellmouth." She couldn't stop it, or lower her hands. "Goddess! Willow, I can't...it's...feeding on the power of the Key. It wants me to open it completely!"
"Fight it," the vampire hissed. "I know you can. You're stronger. You're the strongest person I've ever met. Don't you dare give up, Tara! Don't you dare! Fight it!"
Meanwhile, the other Willow's body trembled within her icy prison. She gritted her teeth, her glowing red eyes apparently radiating enough heat that some of the ice directly over them began to melt. With effort she clenched her hands into fists and began screaming at the top of her lungs.
The vampire jerked her head up, her eyes narrowing. "Do you hear that?"
"What?" Tara asked, without stopping what she was doing.
"I'm not sure. It's kind of muffled but it sounds like...uh oh." Willow turned her head just as the ice encasing the other Willow shattered into a million pieces.
The black-haired magic user rolled her shoulders and flexed her arms, then smiled. "That's better."
Willow, the vampire, shifted to her demon-face. "Oh great."
"How did you get free?" Tara's confidence began to wane. She had been so sure the spell would hold. Maybe the other Willow was even more powerful than she thought. Then her focus returned to the Hellmouth, as something struck it from the other side. 'Oh no.'
"That's easy," said the black-haired Willow. "That containment spell depends on concentration. You let yourself be distracted by your heart." She nodded toward the vampire. "Your attachment to the leech over there is stronger than your link with the Key, even if it is your own essence. You started losing access to the Key's power and your spell weakened enough for me to escape."
Tara's heart skipped a beat. The Key was indeed weaker than before, and it was taking every ounce of power she could muster just to maintain her hold on the Hellmouth. It was almost like a living thing, straining to open itself the rest of the way, and there was still something else pushing against it. 'Will?'
The vampire didn't take her eyes off her doppleganger as she responded to Tara's mind. 'Yes?'
'I need your help.'
The other Willow's eyes narrowed. "Oh no you don't!" She raised her hands, and an invisible surge of energy hit the two women. They were knocked apart. "No more secrets! We finish this now!"
"Goddess." Tara had landed badly, and one of her arms felt like it was broken. "I can't do this...it hurts to much. I can't fight her. Willow, you have to help me! Stop her! Save the world."
"That'd be a switch." The vampire stood up. "But in case you didn't notice, the last time she kicked my ass. What makes you think I'd have any better chance now?"
Tara held up her good arm. "Hurry. Take my hand." When the vampire's cold hand was clasped in hers she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "You're our only hope." Green energy flowed out of her hand and into Willow's, causing the vampire to convulse and scream as her flame-red hair changed.
The other Willow's face paled even more. "No! Damn it, you can't! The Key is mine!"
"All...up to you...now. Stop...her..." Tara collapsed, her hair and eyes back to normal. "...but watch out..." She was conscious, yet could only move her head. "...for the Hellmouth."
The vampire's hair remained its usual flame-red color, but was streaked with green. Her face returned to human as she smiled. "Wow. I feel so...I don't even know how to describe it."
"I wouldn't worry," said the other Willow. "You won't have that problem for long. All I have to do is kill you and rip the Key right out of you."
The vampire's already green eyes shone far more brightly than before. "Come on!"
As the two Willow's lunged at one another, Tara heard a strange sound coming from behind her. Something like heavy breathing mixed with a low, rumbling growl and stone scraping against stone. She managed to turn her head enough to look at the Hellmouth, but so far she couldn't see anything.
"It's coming." Whatever 'it' was gave off an aura she could sense even from this distance. Its power was terrible, and it made her skin crawl at the thought of what a creature from a hell-dimension might look like. Whatever this thing was, she couldn't do anything to stop it either.
Luck seemed to be on her side, however. The thing was obviously large, which meant it was probably too big to come through all at once. That was the only thing saving them, since that seemed to her to be the only reason she could think of why it hadn't done so already. 'Willow, hurry.'
The vampire and the witch made the exact same move at the exact same moment; a right-hook that would likely have put a hole in concrete. But they were so perfectly matched that their fists met in the middle, and there was a crack like thunder. Both of them winced slightly. Then both Willows backed away from one another. They balled up their fists, and frowned when they realized they were doing the same thing.
"This is insane," said the black-haired Willow. "Fighting you is literally like fighting myself. I know what you're going to do as soon as you decide to do it."
"Oh really?" The vampire clapped her hands together and was enveloped in a blinding flash of green light. When it faded the white-streaked redhead was nowhere to be seen.
The other Willow dropped into a splits just as a fist swung through the area her head had occupied a moment or so before. She glanced up and smiled. "See?"
The vampire lurched back as the witch got to her feet. "How could you know?"
"Easy. It's what I would have done. You forget. I don't just look like you. I am you."
Willow snarled. "You know what? I'm really getting sick of hearing you talk. Maybe I should rip your voice-box out. Or your head off. What do you think?"
"Either way, I'd suggest you hurry."
"Because, from what I can see in your aura, you're operating on borrowed time." The other Willow smiled. "The Key is burning you from the inside out. Your body isn't alive, and since the Key is life-energy the two of you are simply not compatible. Pretty soon, it's going to overload."
Willow growled, angry--because she knew her counterpart was right. She could feel it. Her head was throbbing, her skin felt like it was on fire, and there were green veins forming all over her hands. But she wasn't about to let any of that stop her. "I don't care if I am about to die, again. It really doesn't matter, just as long as I take you with me!" She roared and flung herself at the other Willow. This time her speed and ferocity actually seemed to catch her opponent by surprise. A vicious blow to the stomach doubled the black-haired Willow over, then an uppercut snapped her head back in the opposite direction.
The other Willow staggered, even lost a step, but did not fall. "Okay." She parried the vampire's next punch with her own arm. "I'm impressed. I didn't think you had it in you." Then she put her hand flat on Willow's stomach and unleashed a bolt of lightning-like energy which erupted out the vampire's back and scorched the ceiling overhead even as it sent her flying. "Bet you didn't see that coming either."
"Willow!" Tara screamed. "Oh Goddess no. No." She tried to crawl toward the redhead, but though her body was more willing now her injured arm erupted in pain and she screamed again. She rolled onto her back, clutching the limb, and lay there with tears in her eyes as a shadow fell across her. "Willow."
The black-haired woman standing over her smiled. "Right here baby." She kneeled down and put a hand on Tara's arm. "Let me help you with that." A minor exertion of her power allowed her to numb the blonde's pain. "There. It doesn't look broken. You'll be fine." She glanced over at the other Willow. "There's something I have to take care of first. Then you and I can go on a little trip. How's that sound?"
Willow stood up. She knew the blonde would probably resist at first since she was not 'her' Willow, but in time the two of them would grow together. After all, it wasn't like she had a lot of choice. The vampire would be dead, and for that matter so would the world the two of them had come from. She intended to use the power of the Key to make a brand-new world of their own, where they could live happily ever after.
Behind the unsuspecting witch, something finally began to emerge from the Hellmouth. A mass of thick, slimy gray tentacles. Their demonic owner was grasping blindly, searching for anything warm or solid to latch on to, to anchor itself in the mortal world. And a woman radiating magical power was just the thing. They homed in on her in seconds, and she gasped as tentacles wrapped around her wrists.
"What the...no!" Several more entwined her legs and lifted her off the ground. "Stop it! Get off me!" They began dragging her back toward the Hellmouth. "No, not there!" As strong as she was they proved to be far stronger, and with her hands bound it was more difficult to do magic. "I won't have any power!" Her eyes filled with red energy, but before she was able to do anything she was yanked straight down into the Hellmouth, where a monstrous roar was heard on the other side, followed by a strangled scream.
Tara groaned. "Have to...close...Hellmouth..." With the pain numbed she was able to think more clearly, and she knew the longer the Hellmouth stayed open the better the chance the thing with the tentacles--or something even worse--would find a way to get through. And once it was out of the way, any demon with the urge for exploration would be right behind it. But she didn't see any way to stop it. She had no power left. She was drained. "Goddess." Then out of the corner of her eye the blonde noticed a bright green light.
She rolled over, and gasped.
A spectral figure was floating above Willow.
It was a glowing green energy, in the vague shape of a human female. She smiled as she moved closed to Tara, a strange calm falling over the witch.
"It's nice to finally meet you."
Tara blinked. "You too. Um...you are the Key, right?"
Tara shook her head. "But you shouldn't be here, unless..." She gasped. "Oh Goddess, no. Willow?"
"She lives. At least as much so as any vampire. My presence within her allowed me to maintain the spark of life so it did not fade. I also enhanced her natural healing before I departed."
The blonde smiled. "So she'll be okay?"
Both Tara and the Key entity turned their heads as the tentacles began to rise from the Hellmouth again. A loud roar could also be heard from somewhere below them.
"We have to do something," said Tara. "Before that...thing, finds a way out. This is our fault."
The Key entity nodded. "I know. It is my responsibility."
"No, it's ours. I was as much a part of the decision to open the Hellmouth as you were."
"Perhaps. But if it weren't for me, it would not have been necessary to open it in the first place."
Tara looked up at her. "What do you mean?"
"My fight with Willow took place in England, where a coven of witches supplied me with the power to stand up to her. They told me I was their only hope." The entity lowered her head. "But I failed them. Just as I failed all my friends and..." Her essence rippled. "My emotions got the better of me. I lost control of the magic. Willow saw it and tried to take advantage of it. But neither of us anticipated that Stonehenge, where we were fighting, would act as sort of a magnifying lens, causing the primal energies to build until the very fabric of reality could no longer take the strain and it collapsed in on itself."
Tara paled as she listened. "So, in trying to save your world..."
"...I destroyed it. Yes. Willow and I were both thrown outside of our reality. Outside of all realities. She landed here on your world, in the past. I ended up somewhere...somewhen, else." The entity floated forward, towards the Hellmouth. "So you see? It's my fault. I started it, and I have to end it."
Tara reached out. "Wait! What are you going to do?"
"What someone should have, long ago. The Hellmouth must be sealed permanently, so it can no longer threaten any world. It is a door which must be locked, and I am the Key." The entity smiled over her shoulder. "Goodbye. I only wish we could have had more time together."
"So do I."
The entity then glanced at Willow. "Be good to her. Above all, you know love is a precious gift." She turned and floated into range of the questing tentacles, which tried repeatedly to grab her incorporeal body. With a final nod to Tara she crossed her arms over her chest and sank into the Hellmouth.
At first nothing happened. Then the ground began to shake, and the tentacles jerked back down into the hole. An immense column of seething green energy shot straight up, burning through every floor of the high school above and erupting high into the sky. Monsters and people all over the city saw it, and each one had a different reaction; ranging from blind panic to reverence to simply passing out.
Tara turned away and shielded her eyes until it was over. When she could no longer feel the overwhelming heat she dropped her arm. The hole was gone. She expanded her mystical senses and detected no energy coming from the Hellmouth at all. "She did it." She closed her eyes for a moment and said a silent prayer, then nursing her still injured arm went to check on Willow. "Baby? Can you hear me?"
Kneeling, Tara got a closer look at the scorched hole in her shirt and a ring of blistered flesh underneath. 'She's strong,' the blonde assured herself. 'If anyone can make it..."
Willow stirred. She rolled over, on to her back, and Tara saw another hole and more seared flesh. "In case...you didn't notice...I'm trying to sleep here. Could you keep it down?"
A wave of relief washed over Tara, who wanted so badly to hug the redhead. "Goddess! You scared me. Willow, don't ever do that to me again. I thought I'd lost you."
"So did I." With obvious effort the vampire sat up, and she needed Tara to keep her from falling over again. "I've never been afraid of death. Not since I died the first time anyway. But when she shot me, I felt more scared than I ever thought possible. And you know what I was afraid of?"
Willow reached out and cupped Tara's cheek. "Never seeing this face again."
"Goddess!" Tara threw her good arm around the redhead's neck. "I love you. I love you so much."
Willow returned the embrace, with fervor. "I love you too."
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